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A turning point at the airport

The International Aerospace Exhibition is actually known for its innovations in civil aircraft. But the world's conflicts are also changing the ILA. The arms industry is moving into focus.

Ole Hilgert

At first glance, it seems inconspicuous: Barely waist-high, around five meters long and painted dark gray, a “Taurus” cruise missile is parked in front of the exhibition stand of the European arms manufacturer MBDA. For months, there has been discussion about a possible delivery of this highly effective and precise weapon to Ukraine. At the International Aerospace Exhibition Berlin (ILA) in Brandenburg, visitors can get their own impression of the “Taurus” in the coming days.

Only five letters differentiate this model from those equipped for combat use: “INERT” is printed on the side of the rectangular fuselage. In military language, the English abbreviation indicates that an ammunition does not contain any dangerous substances. If you look around the open space at the ILA, you will see this note on many exhibits.

A few meters away, soldiers from the German army are driving up the mobile launch pad of a “Patriot” air defense system. An air force helicopter is parked next to it. The German weapons manufacturer Diehl is presenting the latest version of its “IRIS-T” guided missiles. And the Israeli arms company IAI is presenting the “Arrow-3” missile defense system, which will soon be delivered to Germany.

More space for defense and weapons

Depending on your perspective, this part of the exhibition grounds on the edge of Berlin-Brandenburg Airport can be impressive or frightening. One thing is clear: the focus of one of Europe's most important aviation trade fairs has shifted. Military equipment has always been exhibited at the ILA. But for the first time there is a separate “Defense Park” as part of the overall concept. The German Armed Forces is the largest individual exhibitor.

However, spokesman Patrick Keller from the German Aerospace Industries Association (BDLI) rejects the idea that the ILA is becoming a weapons exhibition: “We still have a clear civilian focus. At the same time, however, we are also noticing a change of times here.” The social climate has changed, says Keller. Acceptance of the Bundeswehr and the military has increased. However, there is criticism of the increasing presence of defense technology at the trade fair, for example from the Left Party in Brandenburg.

Networking of military and civil aviation

Aletta von Massenbach, on the other hand, cannot see any militarization of the ILA. The CEO of “Flughafen Berlin Brandenburg GmbH” assumes that the different segments of the industry complement each other: “Civil aviation benefits from research in the military sector just as much as from space technology.” Only through this interaction can the goal of making the future of flying emission-free be achieved.

The airport manager is thus addressing the second important part of this year's exhibition: the sustainable transformation of aviation. Science, industry and governments have long been researching and testing ways to get the poor climate impact of flying under control. Rolls-Royce, for example, is exhibiting a fuel-saving turbine at the ILA. Airbus is presenting the prototype of an electrically powered flying taxi. And the German Aerospace Center is showing the latest research results on sustainable fuels. At the same time, all three exhibitors are also active in the military segment.

Signs of recovery in the industry

Economically, the signs in the industry are pointing towards recovery after the shock of the Corona period. The figures recently published by the BDLI show that last year the aerospace industry reached pre-pandemic levels for the first time. Total sales in 2023 were 46 billion euros. According to the industry association, a large part of this is due to the Bundeswehr's special fund. But civil aviation is also growing again.

Another piece of news a few weeks ago should have pleased everyone involved: the states of Berlin and Brandenburg have agreed with the airport company, trade fair operator and BDLI to continue holding the ILA in Schönefeld until at least 2030. Demand for tickets this year was enormous. Tickets for private visitors were sold out even before the trade fair began.

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